bioephemera

So I ran across this thread, and it made me sad. (And no, not because it wasn’t Ed Yong’s blog, although that too.)

It started off as a happy post: the author, Paula Chambers, is a PhD who began her own online community for PhDs seeking jobs outside academia. That’s awesome. But when Chambers went to hire an assistant, and received applications from fellow PhDs (and ABDs – “all-but-dissertation” scholars), she was not impressed:

I was and remain astounded by the failure of so many smart, educated people to follow instructions. It wasn’t complicated. I asked for a résumé, cover letter, and writing sample, submitted by e-mail. Every Ph.D. applicant except for one managed to screw this up in some way: no cover letter, CV instead of résumé, no writing sample, or sent by paper mail rather than e-mail. I could not believe it. (source)

There’s not much I can say about not following instructions. Grad school can make you pretty frantic and ADD, still, when you apply for a job, you need to show you can follow instructions. But people in the comment thread immediately guessed that a lot of those PhDs were knocked out of the running because they turned in a CV, not a resume.* That’s what I’m concerned about as well, and what made me sad about this post.

There is indeed a difference between a CV and a resume. But as a PhD who has applied for and gotten many jobs, I don’t think the difference between a CV and a resume is clear. It’s clear there is some difference, but it’s not necessarily clear what that difference is. So I am not at all surprised if, given the lack of career resources for PhDs leaving academia, no one had ever explained to these poor souls that the person hiring them for a nonacademic job didn’t want abstracts of all their conference papers, posters, etc.

To make things more complicated, in various fields, resumes have evolved down divergent paths. The magnitude of the difference between a CV and a “resume” fluctuates, depending on what is normative for applicants in your industry/sector. Generally, resumes should be one page (if you’re in doubt, always stick to one page), but I’ve also seen multi-page resumes held out as models in certain circumstances. In some industries, resumes for non-profit jobs and resumes for corporate jobs are differently formatted. Academic CVs, too, vary considerably; I encounter many of them, and so far no two are alike. The range of CVs/resumes I have from my own multifarious career phases runs the gamut.

Maybe Chambers, who wrote her dissertation in rhetoric and composition, is particularly sensitive to the differences between the classic “resume” and “CV”; maybe she learned this early on; maybe in rhetoric it’s a really big deal. But the first time I encountered the difference was in a student services workshop for (you guessed it) PhDs wanting to leave academia. This type of practical information – information that employers in the “real world” assume you already have, that can mean your application packet gets thrown in the trash without a glance – is exactly what many graduate students need help finding when they consider extra-academic career strategies. My bet is that for most PhDs who don’t know the difference between a CV and a resume, it isn’t evidence they don’t care about detail; it’s evidence that they are utterly at a loss outside the ivory tower, and they aren’t getting help making the transition.

Anyway, to make a long story short: yes, if you didn’t know, there is a difference between resumes and CVs. Maybe Chambers’ job ad specified a particular resume format, in which case her clueless applicants had no excuse at all. But maybe the ad just said “resume.” How many of you have a resume written up? The ideal place to start is with examples from your area of study/practice, for the type of job you’re seeking. Your university’s career center should be able to help with this, if you don’t know anyone already in the private sector. Keep in mind that even within a career area (“science policy”), there will be differences in formatting depending on the type of job. Government jobs are their own beasts, as are fellowships; they may make you submit your resume through an online system, so it’s prudent to create a plain text version that won’t generate bizarre formatting problems when you paste it in, and that can be easily tweaked to their instructions.

I wish Chambers’ post had linked to a few reliable resources to help grad students turn CVs into resumes; she clearly believes it’s common knowledge, but I’m not so optimistic. Unfortunately, a few articles I had bookmarked seem to be dead links. But you can still see an example CV-turned-resume here, and here’s an article about the conversion. And here’s a good list of mistakes not to make. You can often get a quick review of your resume from career services offices – it’s more or less helpful depending on the office, but it’s worth a shot. You can find more resources if you Google creatively; just watch out for questionable job sites that seem to have copied their model resumes out of 1950s-era vocational ed textbooks. Look for resumes for your general field, not generic “resumes,” if at all possible. The point is to be aware that there is a difference between a CV and a resume, and that difference can make the difference between someone looking at your application seriously, and having it thrown out.

You probably won’t be able to perfectly anticipate what employers want until you’re in the area, but you can at least get in the ballpark. In short, the key is relevance: as well as you can, show you understand and are interested in the kind of work the position involves, explain how your experience has prepared you not to be a professor, but to do this job, and if necessary, jettison your other content. Yes, even those poster presentations! Your resume has to make you look relevant to people who think academics are out-of-touch eggheads with their noses in microscopes (and to people like Chambers, who already know that isn’t true, but care a lot about detail.) Make them believe you are the perfect job candidate – and you just happen to have a PhD on the side, which could totally come in handy, but doesn’t define who you are.

It seems I meet more and more PhDs all the time who are opting for non-postdoc paths and I wish you all much success in finding the right fit. No career is perfect, but if you’re unhappy, there is something better out there for you — believe it. :) And good luck!

*I am WAY too lazy to figure out how to make this post format “resume” properly. Insert lots of accent marks as you read it, if you will. Thanks! :)